Molly Schmidt‘s hotly anticipated debut novel, Salt River Road, won the 2022 City of Fremantle TAG Hungerford Award. It has now gone on to be longlisted for this year’s Indie Book Awards Debut Fiction Award, looking to continue Fremantle Press’s tradition of unearthing stand out Western Australian Writers.
The story of the Tetley family, and their journey to healing after the death of their mother from a long and painful illness, Salt River Road is a lyrical and sensitive portrayal of the grieving process in more ways than one. Schmidt undertook detailed consultation with local Menang and Goreng Noongar Elders to include appropriate and culturally sensitive references to First Nations people and history within her work. The result, simply put, is remarkable.
Though there are five Tetley siblings, Salt River Road is told through the eyes of only two of them – solitary daughter, Rose, to whom much of the caring responsibilities of the family try to fall, and troubled Frank, who acts out in response to his distress. Soundtracked by a subtle list of songs (which you can find on Spotify), this is a novel which is very much of a particular time and place in Australian life, but also still feels contemporary and universal.
Peppered throughout the narrative there are poems, from the same points of view, which explore the angst and raw feelings of the characters. I found this a very effective way to render grief and sadness on the page, leaning into ideas that might have felt overwrought or ‘purple’ if left as simple prose. As poetry, these sections can follow the lack of structure that accompanies strong waves of emotion, as well as breaking up the action and allowing the reader time and space to breathe.
The themes of this novel are heavy ones. Loss of a parent features heavily and may be triggering for some readers who have cared for a loved one through an illness. (Perhaps the reason why this feels so authentic is that this part of the story is drawn from the writer’s own experience of losing her father at a young age.) On top of this, subjects of self-harm and attempted suicide, racism, parental neglect and homophobia are all explored to various degrees. It is a testament to the skill of the writer that the overarching feeling that a reader is left with at the end of this book is one of hope. Schmidt focuses on moments of beauty, such as in describing the landscape, or the love between the siblings and their friends, to highlight the highs and lows of the Tetley’s lives.
This is a gorgeous, heartfelt book and I feel certain that its run of award-winning has only just begun. Reach for this one if you love Australian literary fiction.